Quite simply Zong is at the end of the road and maybe at the edge of the roof of the world. We left Khorog at six in the morning in a Toyota land cruiser with a sat phone ariel bolted to the bumper and probably one of the toughest and most able drivers in the region. Our route is basically out of the city and along the river that divides Tajikistan from Afghanistan. In the beginning the road snakes out of the valley and climbs up about 200 meters. It is essentially one lane from Khorog to China. The pavement ends in the first 5 meters and from then on it is an astonishing mix of dirt, gravel, washout, potholes and on occasion no road at all. Our destination was one of the very last schools in the south eastern part of the country, a stone’s throw from the Wakan Valley.( Read Mortensens's book Stones into Schools) Our destination was the tiny village of Zong and another school visit.
The journey was designed to make very real the educational challenges that face this part of the region. The scenery is spectacular. The road is an endurance test and after about the first 5 mintues I was more than appreciative of the toughness of the Land cruiser and the skill of the driver. Villages came and went each one with its own signature and still similar-. little hamlets tucked or teetering depending on the circumstances on postage stamps of greenery amidst a sea of rock. It is almost impossible to capture the sense of grandeur, beauty and hostility all rolled into one. I continually marveled that anyone can live here and yet can understand how if you lived here you could live nowhere else.
Little kids waved, women in the traditional sparkling dresses with covered faces to protect them from the sun harvested potatoes. Young kids were hauling huge bales of hay on their backs to feed animals coming down from the higher elevations for the winter. Children were walking to school seemingly out in the middle of nowhere. Donkey’s loaded down with everything from sacks of grain to machinery trotted along down the middle of the road oblivious to the land Cruiser behind them.
We stopped at a mineral spring to get some water that bubbled out of the rocks, it was my iron supplement for the next two months. When the valley flattens out into more of an alluvial plain the road deteriorates even more. We forded a few rivers, ground over the remains of a landslide or two, got behind countless herds of sheep, goats, and cows and simply kept going as the Karakatom got steeper and more covered with snow and the light became more transparent and the air dryer. It was an odd sensation driving along with Afghanistan out the passenger side of the window. The border is lightly patrolled by Tajik soldiers here and there but generally it is wide open. After about six plus hours of driving we arrived in Zong.
The school was a typical soviet style block construction, wooden floors, concrete steps. This week is Rudiki week and we arrived just in time for the assembly. The children were reciting poetry to the applause of their mates. The real significance of this school is that it is not only excellent but it is supported by the IPD which means that at least once a month the mentoring team comes out here and does workshops or helps teachers with new techniques. This commitment to professional development and innovation is humbling. It can not be done with internet and on-line courses because there isn’t any and the brown outs have already started. Winter means less electricity as the small hydro plant is water level dependent.
We had a long meeting with the key teachers most of whom had taught through Soviet times. We asked them about IPD and the new teaching methods. As a group they were incredibly positive with quotes like we were skeptical at first but now we really like it because we see how much the children learn. They talked about interactive learning methods, formative assessment and grumbled about the lack of modern training young teachers were getting at the ped u. What a marvelous thing to have some of the oldest and most conservative teachers in one of the remotest schools be ahead of the curve. They discussed how they solved community problems such as providing hot food for the students. But the thread that ran through the conversations was how IPD had helped them and supported them in real time with real people who got to know them as friends, mentors and colleagues. They came and drank tea.
We headed back to the city knowing full well that much of this drive would be in the dark. Never the less we took a side trip of about 6 k straight up to sit in a natural hot spring that gushed out of the side of the mountain. The government had built a nice small facility that had two separate areas one for women and men. It was heaven . The remainder of the journey home was much like the trip out with the exception that as the light leaves the wind comes and with the wind comes the dust. Even after dark there were still kids walking home and families coming in from the fields. Life is not easy.
We got back to the city late and an exhausted team. Supper was light and we all have found a quiet spot to write and ponder the day. I am sitting on a small enclosed balcony with a cup of tea listening to the sound of the river. The moon is bright and I can not help but be self-reflected. Education is working here at the top of the world in a way it is not working in most of the rest of the country. There has been a commitment to build schools every where there isn't one. They are tidy white buildings of sometimes only 5 rooms. The point is that all kids go to at least primary school which is up to about 8th grade. They walk not more than about 5 kilometers some get hot lunches that are prepared by parents some simply go home. Their teachers, for the most part, are using interactive methods, they are rock solid on goals and objectives and kids can read and do math calculations in their heads. But perhaps the real take home message is that the educational enterprise is an intimate community endeavor supported by a an apparently tireless team in IPD whose vision is shared by all including our driver. Clearly IPD has sown the seeds of excellence in education in the stoniest of soils and it has flourished.